Stranger Things: Dungeons & Dragons, Nerd Culture, and Narrative

Posted December 5, 2017 by Haley Schojbert in Nerdy Bits

The first season of Stranger Things begins with Will, Dustin, Lucas, and Mike excitedly playing a campaign of the role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. Throughout the show, D&D evokes nostalgia and associations with nerd culture, but it serves a larger narrative purpose than being blatantly meta or a callback to the Duffer Brothers’ childhoods. It becomes a lens in which the characters relate to the world around them.

After losing Will, the boys make the scary, existential reality of finding their friend into an adventure. They try to make sense of the Demogorgon by giving it a familiar name, despite the show’s monster not resembling the D&D version, because it is easier for them to explain and grapple with. And this is what I enjoyed about the show’s use of the game as a part of the plot: It is a loose interpretation that is accessible to everyone watching . Because the rules and lore of the game are irrelevant to the narrative justification of how it is used, the reference is more than a feeling of collective nostalgia for a part of their audience. Growing up in a lab, Eleven has no previous understanding of D&D, but the show doesn’t play this for a cheap laugh or jab because she has a solid grasp on the concept of friendship.

If you have never played D&D, you can still understand the game’s significance to the story and the characters, and that’s a pretty successful motif.

Recently, I read Armada by Ernest Cline, and much like in his first novel, Ready Player One, Cline weaves references into the plot of his stories. Cline throws in lines about sci-fi, arcade video games, and also happens to focus on D&D. Although the book doesn’t have much to do with Stranger Things, it got my gears turning about how using references can be nuanced and clever, or groundless and random. In one part of Armada, Cline describes the protagonist’s mother as being similar to “Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley” despite this character not being like either of them—I mean, I guess she holds a gun at one point? It might seem like I am digressing here, but bear with me—my criticism with overloading references is how self-congratulation becomes a major part of the audience’s takeaway. “Oh, I get it! I’ve seen Terminator and Alien, so I know exactly what type of character she is!” The author, instead of creating a character arc that is unique or paying homage to these stories, can cut corners and spend less time developing his own character, trusting his audience to fill in the giant gap left behind. Inserting a reference to a movie or video game is not enough, at least for me, to make a story gratifying on its own. What I find intriguing is how the familiar elements can tie into a message of a greater scope or theme. Stranger Things is not a show about stereotypical nerds lacking any other character traits besides being involved in nerdom. Their interests connect them, but they still have conflicts that can’t be fixed from enjoying the same media.

Now, this is not to say that Stranger Things is perfect and avoids using tropes. Of course it’s not, but it is successful in writing a love letter to D&D and other 80’s media without pointlessly pandering and sacrificing the quality of the show’s writing.

In the second season, Dustin and Lucas take an interest in a girl named Max, who frequents the arcade in Hawkins. They are first enamored by her skill at playing games, but as the show progresses, Lucas gets to know Max as a person; he opens up to her about the events in season one, and eventually, she believes him and talks about her family life. Dustin, on the other hand, doesn’t really develop the way he views Max past his original perception of her. Lucas and Max might have the same taste in arcade games, but that was not enough for Max. She demanded to be taken seriously, left when the boys refused to let her in, and only returned when she was certain that Lucas was being sincere in telling her the truth.

Beyond Stranger Things is a behind-the-scenes type show that also premiered on Netflix. In the first episode, one of the Duffer brothers seemed offended when the actor that plays Mike, Finn Wolfhard, implied that the gang was outgrowing D&D in season 2. “What does age have to do with playing D&D?” And that statement kind of surmises their intention with including it in the show; it is not about the game as a game. It is about what the game means to the characters. The game can grow with you because it is what you make of it. As we grow up, our perception of the world changes and the game becomes something different to us than it was before. We don’t relate to the characters because they might play a game that we like. The reference isn’t important because we are smart as an audience and understand that it’s a reference. The reference is important in how it expands upon the characters instead of defining them. Stranger Things doesn’t shell out a basic, bare bones version of interactions within nerd culture; it creates believable relationships that happen to contain games. 

About the Author

Haley Schojbert

Haley is an editor, writer, and avid reader that enjoys role-playing games and having a lot of opinions about fictional characters.